By William J. Furney
Power does strange things to people. It’s like a potent elixir and one more powerful than any hallucinatory drug, because it seems as though once you get a taste of top positions in society, it is almost impossible to quit. Aung San Suu Kyi may be the latest example of a person on a rolling power high — someone who will say or do anything to remain in lofty office, even it if means entirely betraying the commendable principles that got her there.
It wasn’t so long ago that lefties everywhere were crying into their muesli because the would-be leader of Myanmar was under house arrest for 15 years for daring to challenge the ruling military junta, which lost dismally to her National League for Democracy’s runaway success in 1990 elections and yet refused to concede and step aside. Suu Kyi, educated in India and England and who married an Englishman, since deceased, and had two children with him, became a global figurehead of democracy.
And now the de facto leader of Myanmar — due to her party’s big win in 2015 elections, and her release from house arrest in 2010 — has seemingly turned the tables on everything she once stood for. It’s because her late spouse and children, with whom she’s said to have a fractious relationship, were and are foreign citizens, Suu Kyi as head of her party is not permitted under the Myanmar constitution to become president; but she still has a powerful role to play in the running of the Southeast Asian country once called Burma and ruled by the British, and as State Counsellor is somewhat equal in stature to that of a prime minister.
Since ascending to the hallowed halls of Yangon, Suu Kyi has managed to not only turn her back on her own people — the stateless and persecuted Rohingya, of whom there are an estimated 1 million — but also and equally disgracefully, condemn journalists jailed for doing their job.
Instead of news headlines supporting the champion of universal human rights, we now have the likes of:
Suu Kyi, now 73 and a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, is, as a result, finding herself blacklisted by the very institutions that once lauded her democratic ideals and high-office aspirations and are — rightly — withdrawing awards they once heaped upon her, including the prestigious Freedom of Oxford award in the English city she once studied in.
As a BBC correspondent noted during a public appearance by Suu Kyi in Europe: “Not once at the World Economic Forum event did Aung San Suu Kyi acknowledge the suffering of the Rohingyas, or the allegations of appalling atrocities against them by her armed forces. Instead she deflected the question. She referred to the decline of small minorities in Rakhine state, whose survival she worries about – a bizarre false equivalence to the alleged genocide of a Rohingya population numbering well over a million.
“And she fell back on a favourite refrain — the rule of law. It should apply equally to all communities in Rakhine, she explained. The two Reuters reporters, she said, were found to have broken the law, they were not punished for their journalism.”
Human Rights Watch agreed, saying Suu Kyi “fails to understand that real ‘rule of law’ means respect for evidence presented in court, actions brought based on clearly defined and proportionate laws, and independence of the judiciary from influence by the government or security forces.
“On all these counts, the trial of the Reuters journalists failed the test.”
As has Aung San Suu Kyi.
The world, however, is not standing idly by, and this week newish British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned during a meeting with Suu Kyi that there would be “no hiding place” for those who committed crimes against the Rohingya — and that the world “won’t let it rest” amid Suu Kyi’s almost total silence on the ongoing atrocities against the ethnic Muslim people.
“If we don’t see that process happening, we will use all the tools at our disposal to make sure there is justice… the world is watching,” said Hunt.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has also now condemned the jailing for the reporter pair, and called on the government to release them. “It is not acceptable to have the journalists of Reuters being in jail for what they were doing,” he said.
Suu Kyi may think she can do as she pleases get away with matters that cause others grave concern. That may be true of her own, subjugated and largely fearful people, but it is not going to work with the rest of the world, especially in the democratically minded West where, after all, she has deep connections.